Florists are bonkers about Peruvian lilies, and for good reason; they hold up as cut flowers for as long as two weeks and they're beautifully exotic. Also known as Lily of the Incas, Alstroemeria grow in a variety of colors: Deep orange, magenta, bright goldenrod, pink, salmon, white, lavender, and yellow...just for starters. Don't even get us started on the multicolored flowers and patterns found on hybridized varieties; there is a ton of 'em and they're all drop-dead gorgeous.
Since Victorian times, flowers have been assigned meanings associated with social values and emotions. Peruvian lilies are said to represent friendship and devotion, therefore making them an appropriate all-around flower to send without appearing to be a stalker or to avoid making an inadvertently inappropriate overture to your boss' sick grandmother.
Most lily-type plants boast enormous blooms, but in comparison, Alstroemeria's flowers are miniature. They pair well with most cut flowers, and when arranged en masse as a single specimen, they fill out a compact arrangement without appearing overcrowded.
The botanical name "Alstroemeria" is a nod to Swedish botanist Klaus von Alstroemer (1736-1794), an associate and student of the famous pioneer of "modern" botany, Carolus Linnaeus.
Peruvian Lilies Represent Devotion...But They Aren't "True"
Alstroemeria aren't actually lilies at all, in spite of their similar physical characteristics. There are several other plants that are mistaken for, or even named after, lilies; these include daylilies, irises, and amaryllises. Sword lilies are often confused with the real thing, though most gardeners recognize them as gladiolas. True lilies, by the way, belong to the Lilium genus and include Asiatic and Oriental hybrids and trumpet lilies.
And guess what? Peruvian lilies didn't even originate in Peru; Chile is their native region, but the genus thrives in many South American countries.
Peruvian Lilies in the Garden
Peruvian lilies are perennial in USDA zones 7 to 10. Those in zone 6 can get their plants to squeak by through winter if they insulate the roots with plenty of mulch, preferably over a base layer of chopped straw.
Mature Peruvian lilies develop tuberous roots, which—if you live outside its preferred USDA Hardiness Zones—can be dug out in fall. Store them in a cool, dark area in slightly damp sawdust or peat moss and replant them in spring.
Peruvian lilies propagate by sending out their roots and rhizomes to surrounding areas. Using care not to damage their roots (which are known to be brittle) you can divide them after their second season.
Many indoor gardeners have been successful in growing their Alstroemeria in a sunny window, and those in colder areas plant their Alstroemeria in large pots, bringing them indoors on colder evenings or during the winter dormancy period.
Sunlight Preferences: Peruvian lilies prefer full sun or partial shade. If you live the hottest areas, treat your plants to afternoon shade.
Watering Requirements: Keep your plants evenly moist, and mulch to prevent the soil from drying out. Maintaining consistent moisture can prolong bloom time.
Soil Preferences: Alstroemeria requires fertile, well-drained soil.
pH: 5.5 to 6.5 is the ideal pH window; don't go over 7 or your Peruvian lily beds will plummet into chaos and anarchy. Or your plants will simply fail to thrive.
Plant Dimensions: 1 to 3 feet tall, 1 to 2 feet wide. An entire stem can be 18" to 30" tall.
Flowers: Peruvian lilies bloom late spring through early July in their ideal climates. Flowering tapers off as temperatures rise.
Unlike the larger blooms of true lilies, these are more compact and abundant. Each flower has three sepals and three petals. Unlike most other plants, which bear green sepals, the sepals on Peruvian lily plants share the same shades as its petals, giving the flowers added dimension.
Peruvian lilies bear dense clusters of 1” to 3" wide satin-textured flowers at the tops of long stalks. The flowers are trumpet-shaped and often adorned with stripes or spots. Depending upon the variety, each flower might look like a psychedelic flashback from the 60s or 70s or from your last trip to Burning Man.
Unlike hippies and "Burners," most Peruvian lilies lack any notable aroma.
Foliage: Alstroemeria's unusual leaves, which are long, narrow, and tapered, are actually inverted. the leaves resemble fat blades of grass, with the veins running laterally from base to tip. Also like grass, the leaves grow upwards from the stems.
The stems themselves grow in a somewhat twisty habit, which is said to represent the "trials and tribulations of friendship."
Maintenance and Harvesting: Aside from what's mentioned above about overwintering and dividing, you can remove spent flowers or harvest "cut" flowers and foliage by grasping the stems at the base, and tugging them firmly but slowly from the soil. As far as using pruners, our trusted sources contradict one another on the practice; some say never use pruners, while others recommend it, if only for deadheading. Gardening Know How published an in-depth look at the where's, when's, and why's of pruning, cutting back, and deadheading Peruvian lilies, and we feel that's the best source of information on this hotly-debated, polarizing, garden-club-cage-match-inducing topic.
Pests and Diseases: Fence your garden to protect your precious Alstroemeria from even more precious cute baby Peruvian alpacas. They're also susceptible to the following:
- Gray Mold: Give them breathing room in humid areas, and water at the base.
- Root Rot: Ensure there's plenty of drainage and organic matter in the soil, and keep mulch away from the base of the plant. Ease back watering a tiny bit until your plants rebound.
- Mosaic Virus: Keep an eye out for aphids, thrips, and other insects known to transmit pathogens.
- Snails and Slugs: Protect young, tender plants with pet-safe slug pellets.
Overall, Alstroemeria aren't any more susceptible to pests and diseases than the average plant, but their exotic appearance prompts many would-be gardeners to give them a wide berth, thinking they're far too difficult to cultivate. On the contrary, once they're started from seed, Peruvian lilies are easy to grow, and the payoff is huge.
Growing Peruvian Lilies from Seed
While mature Alstroemeria primarily propagates through their network of rhizomes, they're also self-seeding. Starting your own plants from seed is a challenge, but for those who want to grow an abundance of cut flowers, or who want to challenge their gardening skills, Peruvian lilies are the way to go.
Alstroemeria seeds go through a dormancy period, only germinating in the most optimal growing conditions. You may have heard that they're impossible to grow from seed outside of a laboratory, and only a decade or so this was true; now, with some simple pre-planting steps, you can be successful.
For best results, use only the freshest Alstroemeria seeds. We're not just trying to push our product on you; under optimal conditions, Peruvian lily seeds have about a 70% germination rate, and reputable seed suppliers who keep their stock in climate-controlled facilities (like we do) are a big part of achieving that percentage.
Step One: Select the Right Seed Substrate
We recommend a soilless growing medium for starting your Alstroemeria seeds. Soil-based seedling mixes harbor fungi and bacteria that can wreak havoc during the long germination process. Each container should hold about 3" of the substrate, with enough room between the soil and rim to allow the seedlings to emerge. About 1/2" is fine.
Step Two: Planting Alstroemeria Seeds
Moisten the substrate (if you squeeze a handful, no water should drip out), and plant 3-4 seeds per container, no deeper than 1/4" below the surface. Wrap each pot in a layer of plastic wrap to retain moisture.
If you don't have a whole lot of room to babysit seeds in pots, you can mix a few seeds with damp peat moss in a small resealable baggie for the next steps.
Step Three: Heat and Cold Stratification
Place your seed pots or baggies in a consistently warm (70°F) room for three weeks. Next, stick them in a refrigerator at about 40°F for another three weeks. If your spouse or housemates haven't murdered you by this point, move your little project back to a well-lit area with 70°F temperatures—but out of direct sunlight—to trigger germination, which should occur in 10 to 14 days.
Before this final step, be sure to shake the substrate in your baggies and lay them flat so your seedlings are able to receive light.
Once your seedlings emerge, remove the plastic wrap. Baggie seedlings should be transplanted with a plastic toothpick, butter knife, or another delicate tool (we like the "spoons" in these cheap sculpting instruments) into the same type of containers as the rest of the "class."
Cover with another 1/2" to 1" of a loose substrate, and keep your little darlings moist as they continue to emerge and take hold.
Step Four: Transplanting Your Starts
Once your seedlings have developed at least one set of true leaves, you can harden them off outside for about a week before planting them in their "forever homes."
Remove the plant and all the substrate from the pot, being careful not to disturb the roots. If two or more seedlings have grown in the same pot, congratulate yourself and plant them all together; separating them will stress out their roots.
Plant your seedlings (other than the twinsies) 1' apart, and keep the soil evenly moist.
Your Peruvian lilies will spend their first season growing and developing their root system and should begin blooming in their second year.
Step Five: Celebrate with a Cold Adult Beverage
Direct Sowing: Throwing Caution to the Wind
It's not impossible to plant your Peruvians directly into the soil, though you'll have a much lower germination rate than if you use the steps as outlined above. Our recommendation is to plant them at the end of the summer for spring emergence. Be sure to thin your seedlings to the recommended spacing, and plant more seeds than you need.
Are Alstroemeria Plants Safe for my Pets?
Overall, yes. Alstroemeria contains oxalate, which can irritate your pets' mucous membranes. If your dog or cat eats Peruvian lilies, they might drool a little more than usual, but the plant isn't considered a serious hazard.
True lilies, on the other hand, are highly toxic to pets, so if you are obsessed with exotics, or are planning to send lilies to your favorite local cat lady, Alstroemeria is your safest option.